OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Back on the Buffalo again
By Mike Masterson January 16, 2021
Just when you thought the karst-laden Buffalo River watershed had eluded any threat of possible contamination by the removal of a misplaced hog factory, another possible threat to that river (and others) has reared its head, this one prompted by, of all folks, the U.S. Forest Service.
Named the Roberts Gap Project, the little-publicized concept creates the unnecessary risk of negatively affecting three of the most ecologically sensitive watersheds of our state, including the headwaters of the Kings, White and Buffalo rivers.
The plan covers 39,697 acres of national forest lands in Newton and Madison counties. Maps showing the proposed action areas, and various alternatives for maintaining healthy forests, are available on the Internet at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53597.
The fundamental objectives, according to the project summary, are to "promote native forests that are more resilient to natural disturbances by improving forest health and increasing diversity of species composition and productivity; maintain and improve water quality as this area holds the headwaters of the White River, Kings River, and Buffalo River; reduce hazardous fuels [such as dry underbrush] and increase herbaceous plant species; [and] address access and visitor use concerns for the mountain bike trail system and Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area."
The way I understand the well-intentioned plan (underway now for about two years), the goal is basically to improve these specific woodlands while making them more user-friendly for the public.
Sounds exactly like what I'd expect from the Forest Service. But hundreds of citizens have expressed concerns with the plan and its possible unintentional negative impacts on the three rivers.
Gordon Watkins, who heads the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said his group, along with other environmentally concerned groups such as Ozark Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Newton County Wildlife Association, expressed their concerns during the public comment period which ended in September. In mid-January they were awaiting a formal response.
Below are portions of their comments on the agency's plan.
"Due to the extensive and extractive nature of this proposal, and in such a sensitive and extraordinary location ... we recommend the potential for as-yet-unforeseen cumulative and significant impacts in this special area, and particularly risks to the Buffalo National River, is too great to proceed under the proposed action or any of the proposed alternatives. This project deserves a harder look."
The alliance's concerns, as they always have been, are for the most ecologically sensitive areas of Arkansas. "It includes the headwaters of the nearby Buffalo National River, designated in this plan area as a Wild and Scenic River, as well as the headwaters of the Kings River, an Extraordinary Resource Water. Both are among our state's most pristine streams. In addition, the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area falls within the plan area," the alliance's comments read.
"The plan area is characterized as having steep slopes and erodible soils atop karst topography. While the proposed activities are mostly conducted outside of these special protected areas (with the exception of hardwood thinning and burning adjacent to the Kings River and prescribed burning across the Buffalo River), these areas will nevertheless be impacted, particularly in terms of reduced water quality,"
The alliance is further concerned over the proposed 20.25 miles of dozer lines to be used for prescribed burning along with another 70.2 miles of combined new road construction and existing road maintenance for hauling harvested timber and accessing work areas.
Although the Forest Service proposes to revegetate all disturbed areas when it completes its planned efforts, and many miles of these roads will be permanently closed, they will nevertheless remain a permanent scar on the landscape, Watkins writes. "In addition to disturbing and exposing the soil, which will lead to inevitable erosion, this extensive network of roads and dozer trails will change the natural flow patterns of surface water in those areas during rainfall events."
There also were concerns over the agency creating ditches and culverts that will channel and concentrate flow, further exacerbating erosion and runoff, all of which ultimately flows into the Buffalo and Kings rivers. Those streams are bound to experience increased turbidity and sedimentation.
"Aquatic species will be impacted and the quality of downstream waters will suffer," the alliance added. "The problem is compounded when the totality of proposed activities are considered."
Timber harvesting, along with the associated skid trails and log pads, will further disturb and expose the soil, as will prescribed burning and herbicide use. "The cumulative effects of these activities will most certainly impact water quality of these designated areas which enjoy enhanced protection," Watkins wrote.
There are additional concerns over the almost 12,000 acres proposed for silvicultural practices including regeneration, thinning, commercial harvest, etc. "If such extensive timber harvesting must occur, we recommend that single tree selection be the prescribed method for determining tree removal and that near-old-growth timber be preserved."
"It's proposed that both hardwood and pine seedlings will be replanted in some areas. Recognizing that pine is much more easily established, we urge caution to ensure that conversion of hardwood stands to pine does not occur."
The alliance also recommended that timber harvesting be excluded from specific areas.
Another controversial agency alternative proposes prescribed burning across 10,666 acres. "Burning (as well as other activities) is proposed up to the boundary with the Wilderness Area and up to, and in some cases across, the stream channels of the Kings and Buffalo Rivers, including inside the designated Wild and Scenic River corridor," Watkins wrote.
He added: "It's stated multiple burns will likely be required. Burning removes protective leaf litter and exposes the forest floor to increased risk of erosion and runoff, which will ultimately impact water quality of streams in the area through sedimentation and increased turbidity.
The alliance recommended burning be prohibited inside the designated Wild and Scenic River corridor and that buffer zones be established adjacent to the Kings River and Wilderness Areas.
Using herbicides on 3,059 acres also raised alliance concerns." Multiple applications will likely be required. Five chemicals are proposed. Recent legal proceedings have found glyphosate to be carcinogenic, and settlements for the case are being negotiated with the Monsanto/Bayer company.
"Triclopyr is likewise suspect. The Ozarks in general, and Roberts Gap, in particular, is characterized as having karst geology, making both surface and groundwater subject to contamination from toxins applied on the surface. Many residents in this area get their drinking water from wells and springs, which tap into this karst aquifer.
"The Buffalo National River is popular as a primary contact waterway for much of the year. Park visitors as well as those who enjoy the upper Buffalo River swim, paddle, fish and in some cases drink from these waters. The introduction of toxins such as herbicides poses a risk to human health and should not be utilized. Manual practices can and should be substituted."
Watkins told me he's visited with Forest Service officials who were receptive to considering the public's suggestions and concerns, although he's waited nearly four months to hear whether the agency's current proposals will be modified, or which of the three approaches it will adopt.
"It's been all but impossible to speak with a person at the Forest Service by phone," Watkins said. "While that is frustrating, we continue to be hopeful, when they make a final determination, they will have acted on our concerns."
He told me that after the decision is announced, there will be an objection period during which those who commented may file legal objections. While the general public may submit informal comments to the Forest Service at any time, only those who commented during formal comment period have official standing to object.
While it's expected that the Forest Service always will act responsibly in managing the best interests of preserving and protecting forests across public lands, I also am not convinced such wide-ranging, ambitious actions are necessary in this fragile region of our state.
Here's a layman's thoughts: What's wrong with simply leaving these sensitive acres alone and allowing Mother Nature to continue taking her course? Isn't that how our most of our special designated wilderness areas are handled?